Film Analysis: Breathless

Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) was a “New Wave” film released in 1960 France and was directed by Jean-Luc Godard. The script was written by Godard and François Truffaut, both of whom were writers for the Cahiers du Cinéma, a journal for cinema. Breathless centers around a petty womanizing car thief, Michel, who by misfortune ends up killing a police officer, and tries to convince an American girl, Patricia, to run away with him to Italy.
In a previous scene, Michel had taken the keys to Patricia’s apartment without the knowledge of the desk clerk. In this scene Patricia is finally going back to her apartment and notices the keys aren’t there. The desk clerk claims she must have left it in the door to her apartment. When she gets into her apartment she notices that Michel is in her bed. This scene carries significant traits of the French New Wave in its display. We see the emphasis of material, making the audience aware of the filming process (rather than plot, which this scene falls far away from), by use of a handheld camera and direct sound. There is also the use of jump cuts again rendering us to be aware that we are watching a film. The discontinuity prohibits us from really getting into the narrative of Michel being a man who’s on the run from the law. Making the audience think and having traits that are anti-narrative the scene is a good example of the New Wave’s idea of rebelling against the traditional narratives of “cinéma de papa.” Godard wants us to think about literature, love, relationships, discourse, human interactions, philosophy, and social ideas. Because this scene stirs so far away from the narrative, there is a blurring of fiction and reality and aids the audience in thinking more about their own reality. Since this scene is over twenty minutes long, I will only be focusing on just the first half of the scene.
The music that opens the scene when Patricia enters her bedroom and finds Michel lying in her bed is a jazzy piano American tune. It gives a different tone to the film, which is set in France. There is a quick medium shot of Michel in the bed and then a long shot of Michel and Patricia. The camera stays fixed for a while and part of Patricia’s body is cut out. This feeds to the blurring of fiction and reality because it resemebles the documentary style in a way by having people partially out of the view of the camera and such a natural setting. Then we go to a medium shot of Patricia through the mirror. The shot shows the back of her head and shoulder, the mirror, and her reflection. The camera stays to the side rather than simply showing Patricia’s reflection at the center. By keeping the camera at this angle gives the affect that the camera will be seen through the window, behind Patricia. Here we can see Godard really playing the idea of a documentary and a fiction film. You can also see the screen slightly moving, suggesting that there is a use of a handheld camera. There are medium shots from Michel to Patricia in the mirror and then a jump shot of Michel looking to the mirror, again the camera is off to the side at an angle to not expose it through the mirror. Then there is medium shot of the two on the bed with their backs to the camera. The music cuts off for a moment and the lighting seems to be coming from the window, really highlighting the realistic approach Godard is going for. The dialogue that the two are sharing is very natural as well. Firstly, Patricia was not at all displeased that Michel was sleeping in her bed in her absence. There aren’t talking about anything vastly important to the plot but rather the thing Patricia is currently not thinking about.
In the background we can hear birds chirping and other noises from the outside. A medium shot of the two in bed with Michel lying and Patricia on her knees holding a teddy bear. A very relaxed and intimate moment. After a while, the music comes back on. Michel has been questioning Patricia about whether she slept with her colleague and the discussion is very witty. Michel claims that he is there to sleep with Patricia and the conversation circles on love and sex. It makes us question at what means to we decide to have sexual intercourse with someone and how do we define what love is. We also wonder whether Michel is sincere with his “love” or is just saying anything to get Patricia to sleep with him. There is then a close up of a magazine that Michel is holding and there are several jump shots as he flips the pages. Showing the magazine of naked women really isn’t showing much significance, but shows great relation to the kind of man that Michel is. Continually talking about sex and we’ve seen him mingle with numerous women.
We then go out to a medium shot again this time more to their left side. Michel continues to ask Patricia to sleep with him and he rummages through her things a bit, she mentions for them to be like Romeo and Juliet and the camera cuts to a drawing on the wall of Romeo and Juliet, and then back to the two. They play a weird game together. Something really natural and authentic. There is a close up of Patricia’s face with Michel’s hands around her neck. He’s counting up to eight for her to smile, and if she doesn’t he’ll strangle her. He counts up to seven and three quarters, calls her a coward, and then she smiles. Patricia says she’s done with the games and walks over Michel. He touches her butt and she lays a stinging slap on his face. There are medium shots of him on the bed and her at the window. All the while the camera still slightly shakes. Michel sways back in forth in this dialogue. He insults Patricia one moment and then praises her the next. For someone who is requesting sex he isn’t really cautious of his actions towards her. In no way is he romancing her. There’s a medium shot and Patricia asks about Michel’s passport which he says is his brother’s. This kind of leads us back to the story and brings to our remembrance the fact that Michel is on the run and wants to leave for Italy. As they smoke and Patricia turns away from him and open the window, we hear the sounds of outside and the actual world, again aiding to the documentary affect. Michel asks if Patricia ever thinks of death and in this intimate moment the audience’s mind is reeling to think about death. However, Patricia turns around and tells him to say something nice, completely shifting the tone. The conversation dwindles into things less meaningful. It takes the course of normal conversation. He eventually declares that he has something nice to say and says he wants to sleep with Patricia because she is beautiful. When she denies she is, he says because you’re ugly then. A really interesting approach in trying to make Patricia have sex with him. His requests aren’t eager but persistent. Patricia leaves with her poster in hand and walks right over the view of the camera another interesting affect which plays more to reality. There’s a close up of Michel and the camera slowly moves up to a drawing above him and then moves back down to him and then to Patricia with her poster rolled up. They stare at each other and she looks through the folded poster and the camera follows her gaze through the poster. This was one of the few real cinematic affects used and geared more to the fact that it is a movie and not a documentary. As the camera closes up to Michel it then cuts to Patricia and Michel with their lips pressed together as the camera pans out. It then jump cuts to Patricia putting up a poster. Michel requests to make a call and again we are thrust back into a bit of the plot with Michel trying to reach his friend who owes him money.
The entire scene could be seen as elliptical editing. We were shifted to Patricia’s apartment and we stay there for an extremely long time. We’re only to focus on the two’s interaction and the various things they talk about. The acting was very fluid and natural and at moments could even have been improvised. We can really get the sense that this movie-making-process was something that was constructed along the way of the film being shot. As Godard says the film is a search and he goes about it in that way. Godard stays true to his love for the documentary films and professional actors really pull the feat off. Thought they talk about sex and play around with each other, there’s no sense of voyeurism or of the viewer invading a private moment because it felt so like a documentary film and that these people chose to have their lives recorded for us to see. The twenty minute scene managed to stay entertaining for us somehow and not drag out. This scene was a really compelling moment for us though there was no sexual intercourse, violence, or change of setting.

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